True grit

AC Milan have been making waves in the transfer market of late. But as Adam Digby reports, their most important addition could be a veteran centre-back with a fascinating story.

First, an admission. I used to be a hater.

During his first spell at the club I couldn't believe Juve had spent €7 million AND given up half of Giuseppe Sculli, Matteo Paro and Daniele Gastaldello in co-ownership to Chievo for a then 26 year-old central defender. Nicola Legrottaglie was average at best under Marcello Lippi, then he was discarded by Fabio Capello – sent out to first Bologna and then Siena on loan.

It was here that a man who had enjoyed each and every benefit of being a professional footballer to the absolute limit was introduced to 'Atletas de Cristo' - Athletes of Christ – by new teammate Tomás Guzmán. Founded by former footballers and with Kaka, Felipe Melo and Edinson Cavani among its members, Legrottaglie credits the group with changing his life and relaunching his career.

His rediscovered faith certainly had a huge impact and this is extremely important to him but, while he is willing to speak out on important issues he never forces his faith onto others. It has earned him the nickname 'Fratello Nicola' among other players and fans and he admits he wears the number 33 as it represents the age at which Jesus is believed to have lived until.

Legrottaglie spent just one season at Siena and came back to Turin for the season spent in Serie B, but played only ten games and in truth was pretty poor. Upon returning to the top division he was once again a reserve behind Jorge Andrade and Giorgio Chiellini who was being converted from a leftback into the tough central defender we see today. After injury all but ended the Portuguese International's career Juventus were left with Legrottaglie and little else. People were more than a little worried. They shouldn't have been.

The remaining 14 games saw Juve concede only nine goals and a great partnership blossomed. Despite both men preferring the left-sided centre back position, they complimented each other perfectly; Chiellini's brawn and recovery pace meshing ideally with his new partner's excellent ability to read the game and more elegant style. The partnership was even better the following season and Nicola began to deservedly be included in Marcello Lippi's Italy squads.

The following season some intelligent person - yes Alessio Secco, we're looking at you - thought that bringing Fabio Cannavaro back from Madrid was a bright idea and Legro played just 19 games. Assessing his contribution to the club was not too difficult, almost every observer could see the born-again central defender suffered more than anyone from the influx of poor performers.The solid partnership with Chiellini from the previous season was prematurely discarded. At this point in their respective careers, Legro was arguably a better player than the Italy Captain.

Legrottaglie's playing style certainly made him a far more effective pairing with Juve's best defender, as Chiellini and Cannavaro simply shared too many traits. The lack of regular games cost him his place in the World Cup squad last summer, which was truly a shame as he had become a valuable member of Lippi's Azzurri set-up. His attitude to it all was, as ever, first rate as he truly is a professional in every sense of the word.

As this season began his leadership skills received recognition from a number of sources. Chiellini and Lorenzo Ariaudo both give him credit, Chiellini stating that he played a significant role in helping him adjust to the central back position and Ariaudo saying he calmed him as a person and taught him to defend properly. Summer signings Marco Motta, Davide Lanzafame and Marco Storari also publicly noted his role in their adaptation process.

Meeting Legrottaglie in Pinzolo this summer his great attitude was plain to see and his happiness at simply being a Juve player shone through when he spoke to us. Many of the squad would stop to say a few words, Nicola stayed until the crowd simply grew too big and he had to leave.

The player clearly did not stay in Turin just to make up the numbers and collect his paycheck, but also a realisation that the coach's decision must be accepted. At a time when Juventus are looking more than ever to the future, players who have been at the club a number of years will be hugely important. For all Chiellini's qualities, he is still a relative youngster with much to learn about both the game and his position. Having a veteran like Nicola, who has been through almost every imaginable situation a career can throw at a player is invaluable. Shortly after the season started he was interviewed by SkyItalia where he said;

"Physically I feel better than when I was 20 years old. I have an expiring contract but I would like to spend the rest of my career at Juventus. It is obvious that the team must believe that I can add value." "When we move away (from Juventus) you can see the differences in organization, reputation and support. This jersey is missed and this is why it is difficult to leave it. Football is like this. The seasons end and others open even in the history of your career."

"When you make a choice and you find yourself in another team, I think there should be no controversy but peace and serenity just like mature men. This should not give way to anything else. This year mates like Trezeguet and Camoranesi left us and I thank them and send my most affectionate regards to them. They are and always will be a part of my life.” "A great team which fights until May must have three/four central defenders capable of being part of the staring line-up. I think that with Giorgio we had two great championships. Now the starter is Bonucci and I must respect the choices made but at the same time I will not give up because I believe in what I do and will fight to win back my place.”

That he knew Gigi Delneri’s system so intimately (having been one of the famous 'Flying Donkeys of Chievo) only increased his value to the vastly changed squad. Yet now he has moved on, released six months early from his contract and replaced by Andrea Barzagli, a man four years his junior.

Whilst Barzagli possesses the technical capabilities of the 2006 World Cup winner, how he picks up the 'elder statesman' role will be a key issue for the remainder of the season. Legro's calm, knowledgeable presence complimented Delneri's drilling of ideas into men like Motta, Paolo De Ceglie, Armand Traore and Zdenek Grygera perfectly.

Barzagli played for the current Juve boss at both Chievo - where he again replaced Legrottaglie - and Palermo, which should help him continue in the leadership and mentor role left by the most recent departure. Joining Milan on the same terms he had in Turin means he will probably move on again in the summer, but fans of Juventus will always be thankful for having Nicola Legrottaglie who was a true Juventino.

Follow Adam on Twitter @Adz77, for insight on Italian football past and present.

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